Lack Thereof

Disclaimer: The clock doth toll thrice on the third hour. I do not own Avengers, nor anything to do with it. Both are truths gleaned from common sense. Need I say more?

Previously on Compromised Loyalties . . .

But before Clint could answer Tony's question, Bruce, ever the more observant than people usually assumed from him, and still pretty quick at grasping things given a bit of time, asked one of his own. "You don't seem very surprised, Tony. Do you know why the Council wants you dead?"

Suddenly, all eyes were on Tony, waiting for an answer.

7:04 am Tuesday, September 23
Tony Stark's Laboratory #4, 59
thfloor, Avengers Tower, New York City, New York

Tony pursed his lips as he chose his words carefully, puffing out a breath through his nose in the way he did when he was asked a question that he wasn't entirely sure how to answer. "I'm sure I could guess a few reasons," he finally offered, though he knew it wasn't a satisfactory answer, and his team's expectant—and Natasha's usual stoic-faced—expressions urged him to answer further. "Well, let's see," he started, snark on full blast; one of his usual coping mechanisms and a fallback to break tense conversations. "It might have been because of the hospital in Nigeria. Or, possibly, the orphanage in Delhi. Or maybe the school in Qatar. . ." He trailed off, tapping a mocking finger playfully to his chin in a classic thinking pose.

"Huh?" asked Bruce, his confusion mixed with the concern from the news from only moments ago, his expression mirrored on Steve's face, as well.

A slight frown settled on Natasha's face as her brain worked to put the pieces together. "Wait, Nigeria, Qatar. . . Tony, did you get into their systems?"

The engineer's lips quirked into a pleased smirk.

"Tony, you—What did you do?" asked the slightly gob-smacked archer.

"What are you talking about?" Bruce questioned, lost to the whole conversation between the spies and the industrialist.

"I may have interfered with a few of the Council's operations, but only the ones that didn't quite agree with me," Tony finally answered, smirk morphing into a smug grin as he said it.

"You what?!" demanded Steve in full I-Am-Leader mode.

"'Interfered'?" Natasha butted in, eyebrow arched. "From what I heard, those operations were completely sabotaged. The one in Delhi was scrubbed before it even really started."

"And were all stamped with the label of 'super-duper-ultra-supremely-classified'," Clint added.

"You hacked their systems?" Bruce asked, rather rhetorically in Tony's opinion because, yeah, he's Tony Stark, of course he hacked their systems. Not really that difficult, actually.

"Why would you disrupt SHIELD operations?" Steve asked, with almost no trace of accusation, which kind of surprised Tony, but only a little bit because they have actually made some progress in civility in the past year. Steve was just honestly curious as to his reasons.

So Tony, in his own show of civil honesty, answered with almost none of his trademark Stark Snark, which probably mildly surprised everyone but hey, he'd just found out that another group of people want him dead, so he was having a bit of an off morning. Probably helped that the answer was rather serious, as well. "They were planning on blowing up a school full of kids to take out a handful of suspected terrorists. I couldn't exactly let that happen, Cap."

"And similar situations with a hospital and an orphanage, I would assume."

"Mmh. Got it in one, Big Green."

"They can't really be allowed to do that, can they?" the old soldier nearly pleaded of the room at large.

"They're the boss's bosses' bosses," Clint said by way of reply.

Natasha continued by explaining, "They have the power to do pretty much anything they want, unchecked."

"And the resources to cover it up, or ensure that it won't lead back to them so that they—and by extension, the grand ol' US of A—won't be blamed for it," Tony concluded, nose wrinkled in disgust.

Silence filled the room as each of the present Avengers digested the information given to them all in the last ten minutes.

It was Banner who finally broke the silence.

"So, to sum things up: the WSC want you dead because you've been screwing up their ops for the past year."

"No," said Clint, suddenly. "Well, yeah, but that isn't the whole of it, anyway. Fury says they're planning something, something pretty important to them and they want Tony out of the way so he can't F it up like he's been doing."

"Fury?" asked Steve.

"That's where I got this intel."

"Do you trust him?"

"Fury is a manipulating, cheating, lying—"

"One-eyed pirate," Tony put in helpfully.

"With a major superiority complex," Natasha added, much to the surprise-but-not-surprise of everyone there, because, yeah, Natasha has a sense of humor.

"Super spy leader of a super spy organization," Clint continued. "But he wants the Avengers to continue working with SHIELD, and he knows that won't happen if one of our own is killed on their orders. So, no, I don't trust him as far as Hulk can throw him, but his intel is sound. I'll trust that."

"The real question," Bruce put in once that had been settled. "Is what is it that the Council is planning that is so important they would rather see you dead than to have you interfere, Tony?"

"That . . . is a good question," Tony replied as, once again, all eyes fell to him. "Honesty? I have not a clue. Their network has been ominously silent, as of late. And I don't have access to live transmissions without a direct link to their servers, so I only get stored and sent data, which is fine for intercepting mission orders, but not so useful in figuring out the bigger picture. A fact that they seem to be using to their advantage."

"So we're in the dark," Steve put forth.

"Yup," Tony confirmed, voice turning thoughtful as he continued. "Unless. . ."

"Unless what?"

"Unless someone can get me a direct link. If JARVIS is downloaded into their systems, we would have access to every dirty little secret they've ever tried to hide."

"And. . ." Natasha started, a wicked gleam in her eye. "It just so happens that Clint has an invitation with them later today."

"How would I get JARVIS into their system?" asked Clint, instantly warm to the idea.

"If I may, Agent Barton," JARVIS interrupted politely. "Sir has recently completed the design and fabrication of a portable program download device, a device that bears a striking resemblance to that of an average—"

"USB drive," Tony finished with a smile. "Which is pretty much what it is, except designed specifically to download JARVIS into closed systems. I forgot about the JUB. Developed that during my coffee-fueled inventing streak last month. And, is exactly what we need for this."

"'JUB'?" asked Bruce, ever the scientist.

"JARVIS Uplink Bus. Plug that in and in less than five seconds, JARVIS can get around any and all firewalls, undetected."

"Full integration into the system, however, may take several hours if one wishes to remain discrete."

"How long do you think it will take?" Steve inquired.

"I will not be able to accurately determine that until I have access to the system, Captain Rogers. Though, I estimate anywhere within six to twelve hours from download."

"What do we do in the interim?" Natasha asked, glancing around at her teammates.

Clint's answer came without hesitation. "We go to ground."

It was Tony's turn to be confused. "What?"

"Even after JARVIS gets the info we're looking for, it will still take us some time to decide what we are going to do with it. And soon as the WSC hear their best assassin won't take the job, they'll just send out another," Clint stated, having already thought this part through.

Slightly offhand, Natasha said, "I want to find out who exactly that will be."

"Wait, wait, hold up. Rewind. What was that about going to ground? We're going to hide?"

"I could take Tony and disappear," offered Bruce.


"SHIELD still knew where you were even when you were off grid," Natasha reminded.

"Hey, I—" Tony tried, only to be ignored again.

"Tash and I can cover your trail soon as we're done at the 'Carrier. We happen to be the resident experts at remaining unfound when we want to be."


"I know a thing or two about staying under the radar," imputed Steve, turning to the two spies. "You two will move faster on your own until you can meet up with the rest of us. Bruce, Tony, and I will find a place to lay low, than we all can rendezvous to plan our next step so we—"

A loud, piercing whistle broke the air. Lowering his hands from his mouth, Tony took the floor back for himself. "None of you have to do any of this."

"Stark," Natasha started, rolling her eyes; exasperation evident in her switch to last name.

"I'm serious. They're after me, not you."

Steve took a step closer to the engineer, a hand landing softly on his shoulder. "Tony, we're a team. If they threaten one of us, they threaten all of us. We stick together on this one. Got it?"

A beat of silence passed, Steve's and Tony's gazes locked as they all waited for a response. Whatever Tony saw in those blue eyes seemed to have been enough as, a moment later, Tony nodded. "Okay." He glanced around at his team. "Okay," he repeated, voice stronger. "We hide."

"Good." Steve removed his hand, but not before offering Tony a friendly pat. "Now we just—"

"Forgive me for interrupting, Sirs and Miss, but there is an incoming call from Pepper Potts. As Sir has been awaiting this call, he previously declared it of the utmost importance."

"Put her through," Tony replied without hesitation. There was a click as the line is answered, before Tony started talking almost immediately. "How is the beautiful head of my company and holder of my deepest affections doing today?"

"Wow, you are really laying it on thick. What did you do?" Pepper's voice rang through the speakers of the lab for all within the JARVIS-secured area to hear.

"What? Me? Nothing. Technically."

Natasha gave a rather unladylike snort to that.

"Tony. . ." Pepper started with a warning tone.

". . . I may have made a group of powerful people a little pissed at me, but this time for an honestly good reason."

"Ah-huh," Pepper prompted, waiting for a proper explanation.

After only a second's pause to figure out how to word it all, Tony summarized the gist of the conversation he'd just had with his team. He concluded his story by asking, "Where are you?"

"You forgot that I'm in Tokyo, didn't you?" she said with what would have been exasperated amusement, if it weren't for the undercurrent of concern flowing in her voice. "I was going over the details of the deal with Fujiwaka Industries, remember? You said you wanted to hear how it went."

"Right. Yeah, Fujiwaka. When will that be over?" Tony hedged.

"Two hours ago." They all could hear the fond smile she had at that.

"On the plane—You're on the plane, yeah?"

"The Starkjet, yes."

Tony shifted slightly on his stool. "And Happy is with you?"

"Of course. Tony, what—"

"Miss Potts, I think you've earned a paid vacation."

Steve glanced at Tony, but Tony paid none of them any mind, focused solely on Pepper.

"Tony, I can't just go on vacation in the middle of—"

"Sure you can! You're the boss, remember?" he brightly interrupted again. "Remember that little island we found in Cape Verde? Why don't you head over there. Tell the pilot to disable the GPS tracker, and just relax there for a while." He couldn't quite keep a hint of desperation from his voice as he almost begged Pepper to understand.

A silent moment passed before she acquiesced. "Alright. But I expect a phone call once everything has been smoothed over."

Relief was thick as butter as he said, "Pepper, Honey, once things are all settled, I'll meet you there in person and fly you home myself."

"I'll be waiting. Take care, Mr. Stark."

"Back at you, Ms. Potts." Few could fail to notice the deeper emotions hidden in their words, though expressed through mutually feigned indifference.

The line disconnected and Tony took a deep breath before turning his attention back to his teammates with a newfound determination. "Now, let's get down to business."

To be continued. . .

Author's Notes: Hah! Victory! I finally got this chapter finished! Yes! Oh, thank goodness. Now we can get to some of the more interesting bits. I won't blather on here, will just leave it by asking: how is it? Good? Bad? Boring? OOC? Well, I'm trying. Enjoy! Take care! Love you all! God bless!